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Undergrads Create Website to Help Make 'Orgo' Simpler for Students

11/13/14
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Orgo Made Simple website designers (L-R) Max Ruge ’15, Elaine Hynds ’15, Alexandra Lucas ’15 and Andrew Francl ’16. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Ed Hayward | Chronicle Staff

Published: Nov. 13, 2014

Organic Chemistry.

Few two-word course titles inspire as much dread in students as the yearlong journey through the structures, properties and reactions of carbon-laden organic compounds and materials.

It is the gateway through which all aspiring chemists and physicians must pass.
“Orgo” is a tough class. No way around it.

But a group of Boston College students think they can demystify the topic and help students survive the course through a new website they designed last summer called Orgo Made Simple.

Their idea is to use straightforward language and clear graphics to supplement the technically focused chemistry textbook materials some students struggle to comprehend, according to the editors.

“We’re not throwing a lot of technical language at them, we’re speaking to students in a much less formal way, a more conversational way,” said Max Ruge ’15, a psychology major who is also in the pre-med program.

Launched this fall, the site has attracted approximately 6,000 visits from both BC and other universities where the word has been passed along, Ruge said. He hopes the site will attract users from around the world.

The inspiration for the website grew out of Ruge’s experience as a tutor at the Connors Learning Center, where he has helped students who were struggling with the course. Some students found the class and the stress nearly overwhelming, he said.

“For some, Organic Chemistry would just wear them down,” said Ruge. “They would be so stressed and some were at the point of tears. It made me think that something could be done beyond the text. A class should be tough, but it shouldn’t bring anyone to tears.”

Other BC students – nearly all pre-med students – joined in the project: Elaine Hynds ’15, Alex Lucas ’15, Andrew Francl ’16 and Christopher Karousatos ’16. Last spring and summer they wrote content, designed graphics and built the website in their spare time, working around summer job schedules.

Most team members drew on their own experiences with the class while refining the website’s topic chapters.

“My own experience in organic chemistry taught me a fundamental lesson about determination,” said Hynds. “I found myself having to study it every day in order to be on par with the rest of the students.  The most challenging part for me was thinking about the abstract concepts.”

Margaret & Thomas Vanderslice Professor of Chemistry T. Ross Kelly said the subject’s reputation as a supremely challenging course is well earned.

“It’s hard work – no apologies for that,” said Kelly, a legendary Organic Chemistry instructor, who has let students know about the website, though he hasn’t evaluated it entirely, nor endorsed it.

The cumulative nature of the course means students need to master each section, then apply those lessons to later sections, said Kelly. For many students – even those who aced their high school science courses – Organic Chemistry tests not only aptitude and experience, but work ethic, study habits and perseverance.

“For many students, it’s the first time they have had to work really hard,” said Kelly. “There are a lot of really smart students here at BC and for the ones taking Organic Chemistry, they have to work really hard. You need a lot of self-discipline. If you fall behind, it’s pretty hard to play catch up.”

One BC student user, Caroline Repetti ’17, said she reviews the site in advance to work through the chapters of the course text.

“I’ve found that I often get lost while reading our Orgo textbook, as it can be pretty overwhelming,” said Repetti. “To help, I usually read the Orgo Made Simple section before I even open the corresponding textbook chapter. Since [the site] does an awesome job of clearly emphasizing and explaining the key points, I then go into the textbook reading already aware of the major concepts and I’ve found that I end up understanding the material a whole lot better as a result.”

Ruge hopes the site will help students work smarter while they work harder.

The trick to learning Organic Chemistry, he said, is that there is no trick.

“Organic Chemistry has a stigma of being really, really scary,” said Ruge. “It is a hard subject, but if you study for it well, maintain a focus on it, and stay calm, then you can succeed.”